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Hugh Tayfield: The Elusive Genius

It is difficult to argue with the proposition that Hugh ‘Toey’ Tayfield is the finest spin bowler that South African cricket has produced. A case can be made to support the claims of the great triumvirate of the ‘googly’ summers of 1905/06 and 1907, but none of Bert Vogler, Reggie Schwarz or Aubrey Faulkner played as many Tests as Tayfield, and in any event when they were an unknown quantity and at their most destructive South Africa were not playing against a side that was truly representative of the strength of English cricket.

There are some who might advocate a contemporary of Tayfield, at least at the start of his career, Athol Rowan. His record against Len Hutton demonstrates what a fine off spinner Rowan must have been, and who knows what he might have achieved had it not been for that wartime injury that affected him so badly there were times he had to take the field wearing a leg iron, but if statistics are the clincher Rowan is some way behind.

Tayfield came from a cricketing family. His father was a good player and his maternal uncle, Sidney Martin, played as an all-rounder for Worcestershire in the 1930s and was a good enough player to do the double twice. Back in South Africa after the war there were a handful of Natal matches where uncle and nephew played together, Tayfield making his debut as a 17 year old in 1946. Two younger brothers, Arthur and Cyril, also played successfully in the Currie Cup and both must at times have come close to being selected for the South African Test side. 

A striking presence in any group Tayfield, with dark hair and matinee idol looks, was a sight that batsmen grew to dread. He wasn’t a great spinner of the ball, and his short shuffle to the wicket did not suggest menace, but he was metronomically accurate and, even on the rare occasions batsmen had any success in getting after him, impossible to disturb. He was a master of the subtle variation of pace and flight and on a helpful surface capable of running through the best batting side, something he demonstrated in his first Test series, at a time when he was still to celebrate his twenty first birthday. 

The famous nickname of ‘Toey’ came from Tayfield’s habit, before every delivery, of stubbing his toe into the ground. It was not a conscious action on Tayfield’s part, simply part and parcel of his action and it was something that was not picked up on until the 1949/50 Australians did so. It was during the famous series between the same opponents in Australia three years later that Tayfield’s other idiosyncracy started, this time one that was deliberate, at least the first time it was done. Frustrated at his inability to get through the Australian batsmen’s defences Tayfield asked his teammates for suggestions as to what he could do. At one point he kissed his cap badge before handing the headgear to the umpire at the start of his over. The wicket of Arthur Morris followed, and from then on Tayfield did the same before every over he bowled.

A place in the starting line up for the first Test of that 1949/50 visit of Australia must have been a long way from Tayfield’s mind when the tour began. He had played very little First Class cricket in the previous season and, a couple of weeks before the first Test, Rowan had match figures of 15-68 in Transvaal’s match against the tourists. Sadly for Rowan however his knee then flared up so badly it was almost 18 months before he played again. 

Australia won the first, second and fifth Tests by a distance and none of the South African bowlers showed themselves to advantage, although Tayfield was seldom collared and did as well as anyone. In the second Test he had also shown some potential with the bat, his 75 helping add 102 with left arm spinner Norman ‘Tufty’ Mann for the eighth wicket in the South Africans second innings. The partnership only delayed the inevitable however, the Australians still winning by eight wickets. Tayfield never did live up to the promise however. The innings was to remain his highest score in Tests, and one of just two half centuries. He was a good player off the front foot, but his technique when playing back was suspect.

The South Africans lost the third Test of the series as well, but probably shouldn’t have, and that is the match where Tayfield made his mark. The home side won the toss and batted and whilst from the heights of 242-2 a total of 311 in the first innings was disappointing, South Africa were well on top at the end of the second day after dismissing Australia for just 75. Tayfield had been the main destroyer taking 7-23. Unfortunately for South Africa skipper Alan Melville then had the rest day in which to ponder whether to enforce the follow on. In the end he chose to bat and, his side dismissed for just 99, much of the impetus was lost. The Australian target was still 337, the highest score of the match, but after some early breakthroughs by Mann and Tayfield Neil Harvey played one of the great Test innings, and Australia won by five wickets. The South Africans drew the fourth Test and did so on merit, so it was a 4-0 defeat and the emergence of Tayfield one of the few positives they could take from the series.

By 1951 Rowan was considered fit to take a place in the party to tour England so, despite the promising start to his Test career Tayfield missed out on the trip, at least as part of the original squad. There were concerns from the outset about whether Rowan’s knee could stand up to the rigours of a full tour so, in mid May, Tayfield was flown out to England. Despite his problems Rowan was able to play in all five Tests, and Tayfield was the only member of the team who missed out on a Test. For once he did not shine, 16 First Class matches bringing him just 29 wickets at 36.55.

The South Africans lost 3-1 to England in 1951. The same England had lost 4-1 in Australia a few months before. The South Africans were due to tour Australia in 1952/53, but many thought it too great a mismatch, the side that had lost to England having lost two of their best batsman, Dudley Nourse and Eric Rowan, their leading spin bowler in Athol Rowan. In addition the promising career of the genuinely fast Cuan McCarthy had ended as a result of concerns about his action. There were many who thought that the tour should be cancelled, and it was only when the South African Board offered a substantial financial guarantee that the trip was confirmed.

Prior to the first Test the South Africans had done reasonably well, although they had lost to New South Wales. The first Test was also lost, but Australia’s margin of victory was only 94 runs and, had Neil Harvey not been dropped off Tayfield’s bowling when 19 (he went on to make 109 in a century Wisden described as dazzling) the South Africans might have turned the tables. Tayfield did not take a wicket in the first innings, but in the second innings he took 4-116 in 33.3 eight ball overs.

The second Test saw the South Africans square the series. The fielding of the young side was quite outstanding and Tayfield was no exception, diving full length to take a catch that had been parried by his skipper Jack Cheetham. Tayfield also contributed a valuable 23 as, after choosing to bat first, South Africa struggled to 227. Tayfield’s matchwinning contribution was with the ball however. He tied the Australians down wonderfully well and at one point bowled unchanged for four hours. He took 6-84 and 7-81 which, together with a fine unbeaten 162 from Russell Endean in the second innings, saw South Africa run out as winners by 82 runs. 

The Australians reasserted their superiority in the third Test, and South Africa had to defend skilfully to draw the fourth Test before David slayed Goliath again in the fifth match and the South Africans confounded their detractors with a six wicket victory. This one was a real team effort, no batsman making a century as South Africa scored 732 runs across both innings, and the bowlers all contributed with more long spells from Tayfield as he took 3-129 and 3-73 from a total of 67.4 overs. Over the series as a whole he bowled more than twice as many overs as any of his teammates and with 30 (at 28.10), took more than twice as many wickets.

In the manner of the times the South Africans, with an unexpected profit for their board, visited New Zealand for two Tests on their way home. They won one and drew one and, the following year, entertained the New Zealanders for a return series. It was the first time that the New Zealanders played a full five match series. That one ended with a 4-0 victory for South Africa, and the New Zealanders had no real answer to Tayfield although, in a famous innings in the second Test at Ellis Park Bert Sutcliffe, with a little help from Bob Blair, took 25 from a Tayfield over. It would be the twenty first century before that was exceeded in a Test match over.

In 1955 the South Africans returned to England with ten of the side who had done so well in Australia. To begin with the trip was not a pleasant one for them as they played poorly in May and lost the first Test by an innings Frank Tyson, for the only time in England, showing the form that had so dominated Australia a few months before. Another England victory followed in the second Test and a series defeat loomed. As they had showed in Australia however South Africa did not give up easily and, with the sun shining, they showed their durability in coming back to win the next two Tests. In the first of them Tayfield’s was a bit part, but in the second his 4-70 and 5-94 were the main contribution to the cause. 

The pitch for the final Test at the Oval was one that helped the spinners, without ever being unfair. There were three great spinners on show, Tayfield, Jim Laker and Tony Lock and they took 8, 7 and 8 wickets respectively. England came out on top by 92 runs. Had Tayfield had a ‘spin twin’ it might have been different. In the series he took 26 wickets at 21.84 and was selected as one of Wisden’s ‘Five Cricketers of the Year’.   

Tayfield was back in England the following summer, a marquee signing by the East Lancashire club of the Lancashire League. Great things were expected but the signing was a disappointment. Blaming the weather, his captain and injury Tayfield scored only 302 runs and took 47 wickets. On the social side he formed a friendship with the English actress Jill Adams that was sufficiently close to persuade Adams to loan him £230 (worth around £6,000 today). At the end of the summer Tayfield went home to South Africa where England, fresh from a 3-1 victory in that summer’s Ashes campaign, were visiting.

England carried on where they left off, comfortably winning the first two Tests, but the South Africans then turned the series on its head. They managed a draw in the third Test, Tayfield taking 8-69 in England’s second innings. He went one better in the fourth Test when he took 9-113 as England failed by 17 runs to chase down a victory target of 232, the ninth wicket being that of pace bowler Peter Loader, caught in the deep by Tayfield’s brother Arthur, fielding as a substitute. The fifth Test had a similar conclusion with, on this occasion, England chasing the seemingly less testing target of 189. This time however they fell 59 runs short, Tayfield again being the architect of their defeat, taking 6-78. Over the five Tests Tayfield had taken 37 wickets at a cost of just 17.18 each, still the largest series haul for a South African.

The 1956/57 series was however the peak. The following winter the South African public must have  been expecting a repeat as a young Australia side under Ian Craig visited them, but the series was a disappointment. The Australians recorded three comprehensive defeats and Tayfield took just 17 wickets at 37.58. The biggest surprise of the series was that Ken ‘Slasher’ Mackay, who in 1956 in England had had no answer to the wiles of Laker, had the best series of his career and seemed untroubled by Tayfield. In 1960 in England, Tayfield’s last series, he was even more disappointing with just 12 wickets at 37.83. Over the tour as a whole he did well, but struggled in the big matches. 

After his disappointing trip to England in 1960 the next opportunity for Tayfield to play Tests was a visit by the New Zealanders for a five Test series in 1961/62. By then though Tayfield’s form was on the wane. He was still only 32, so should still have been at the height of his powers, but he was palpably not the bowler he once had been and seemed unable to arrest the slide and after more disappointing form in the 1962/63 season he slipped out of the game.

What was the problem? It is difficult to discern that as there was no significant injury or loss of fitness but, in a book on the 1961/62 series the Australian writer ‘Dick’ Whitington expressed the view that a contributory factor was a refusal by Tayfield to listen to advice. His tactic of placing two mid ons whilst leaving a gap in the off side was no longer working, but he steadfastly refused to abandon it.

Another example of Tayfield failing to adapt was when, during a trip to South Africa with a Commonwealth XI in October 1959, Tom Graveney started playing Tayfield by planting his front foot forward and then sweeping. South African umpires were not in the habit of giving lbws and Graveney found he had what amounted to a free pass. It did not take long for other batsmen to realise that they could now nullify much of Tayfield’s menace.

In 1960 Tayfield would have good reason to feel somewhat distracted. The terms of the agreement he struck with Jill Adams are not clear, but at some point she had obtained a High Court judgment against him for the money. With Tayfield back in England she took steps to enforce it, and the Daily Mirror picked up on the story and returned to it several times. At one hearing, not attended by Tayfield, Ms Adams’s Counsel came out with the sort of soundbite lawyers delight in when he said of Tayfield in open court he is a slow bowler and an even slower payer. The debt was, apparently, paid before the South Africans returned.

The Adams story suggests that Tayfield was not well liked, and that is something that certainly extended to his opponents. As a bowler he was respected, as a man less so. In 1960 his fellow master of the craft of off spin, Laker, wrote; Tayfield is a fine off spinner, the most accurate I have ever seen. He does not spin the ball as much as, for example, I do, but he has an uncanny knack of tying batsmen down, before adding as a person I have less to say for him; he is not the sort of person I want to have any contact with.

It is difficult to find too much about why this was and, interestingly, one of Laker’s biographers makes the observation that when teammate Doug Insole saw the initial proofs he advised Laker to tone down that reference to Tayfield. This was despite the fact that Insole disliked Tayfield as much as anyone, yet as an illustration of what sporting autobiographies were then like Insole’s own autobiography, published in the same year as Laker’s book, is completely anodyne in the few references it makes to Tayfield.

There are two frequently cited examples that illustrate why Tayfield was disliked. On the fourth morning of the first Test of the 1956/57 series, with South Africa still well in the game, Denis Compton drove the ball back at Tayfield who, despite every Englishman (and on their accounts some of the South Africans) being convinced the ball bounced two feet in front of him, claimed the catch. Ever the gentleman Compo accepted Tayfield’s assurance that the catch was good so there was no ‘incident’, but the matter was clearly not forgotten and something similar occurred later in the series.

In the drawn third Test, having retired hurt earlier in the innings, Trevor Bailey returned to the crease late on the fourth afternoon and was facing Tayfield in the last over of the day. What is not in dispute is that Bailey played defensively at what became the last ball of the day and, as the ball lobbed up to short leg, was given out caught after a thunderous appeal from the bowler. All commentators also agree that he stayed put in the middle for some time after being given out. According to Bailey the decision was a shocker, and that his bat had been tucked in well behind his bat. Insole, non-striker at the time, was certain that all the ball struck was Bailey’s knee roll. On the other side of the coin there were South Africans other than Tayfield who appealed, and whilst the press box was a long way from the middle in their post tour books neither EW ‘Jim’ Swanton nor Alan Ross indicated any concerns about the dismissal. 

Life after cricket did not treat Tayfield particularly well. He was married five times and each of the marriages ended in divorce. His first wife was from Perth, Western Australia and Tayfield met her on the 1952/53 tour. Subsequently it was announced at the end of the 1960 tour of England that he would be marrying a girl from London who would be following him back to South Africa. He had a son from his first marriage, but there were no further children from the other four.

What did Tayfield do with himself after cricket? It is not entirely clear. In 1958/59 he went to Australia to write about that winter’s Ashes series for an English newspaper, the Daily Herald. He went back in 1963/64 to follow the South African tour there, but seems not to have done a great deal more journalism.

In 1960/61 he told the Transvaal selectors that he wasn’t available due to the demands of his business, but he still played four times in 1962/63, so perhaps the venture, whatever it was, quickly failed. In 1969 it was reported that Tayfield appeared in court on a theft charge, although the outcome of the hearing being the dismissal of the charge that cannot be the reason why, after Tayfield’s death in 1994, David Frith reported a rumour that Tayfield had spent a short time in prison.

It was in 1989 that Frith met Tayfield, at an event organised to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of South Africa’s first Test match. He did not look well even then, but left Frith with a quip that perhaps defines him. Asked about his two trips to England he told Frith of a conversation with the legendary Sydney Barnes, whose advice to Tayfield was don’t take any notice of anything anybody ever tells you. That he followed Barnes’ guidance might well explain why so many of his peers were so ambivalent towards him.

In any event the consensus of those few who have written briefly of Tayfield’s later life is that he did not do well. Broken marriages and unemployment are not a good start and the one theme with any degree of consistency is that he did do some journalistic work. He was in Australia in 1982/83 reporting on the World Cup, but unfortunately I have found little to shed any light on the suggestion that he was also engaged in seeking to recruit Australian players for a rebel tour.

What is certain is that Tayfield died in 1994 at the age of 65, spending his last weeks in a hospice in Hillcrest in Natal, dying of oesophageal cancer. He had been ill for some time and was on his own and penniless. Unfortunately the one family member I managed to track down was unwilling to discuss Tayfield’s life with me but he was certainly an interesting man and, hopefully, one day a skilled biographer will be able to get to the bottom of his story.

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